Ray Blanton, three-term congressman and one-term governor, was born in April 1930, in Hardin County and grew up on a farm close to the small town of Adamsville in McNairy County. His “dirt-poor” upbringing in the cotton fields of West Tennessee permanently endowed Blanton with a rough-hewn populist tendency that endeared him to the working classes and many state employees.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Blanton taught briefly in Indiana before returning to Adamsville to help build the family road construction business. In 1964 he was elected to the state House of Representatives, where he distinguished himself by his habit of sitting in the back of the chamber, wearing his sunglasses, and observing the proceedings. In 1966 he won the first of three terms in the U.S. Congress. In 1972 he received the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, and campaigned as a George Wallace-like pro-segregation populist. Republican incumbent Howard Baker handily defeated Blanton in the November general election.
In the 1974 Democratic primary, Blanton won the gubernatorial nomination with only 23 percent of the vote in a twelve-man race. In the general election, he defeated Lamar Alexander, selling himself as a reform Democrat in the year of President Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal.
Blanton’s term as governor ranks as one of the most controversial in Tennessee’s history. Despite the corruption that surrounded his administration, however, there were also numerous solid accomplishments. He created the Department of Tourism, the first in the nation. Blanton traveled extensively for the state, making numerous trips to Washington, D.C., and three overseas trips to recruit foreign investment. Although critics questioned his large travel expenses, the explosion of interest in Tennessee by British, Japanese, and German investors paid enormous dividends. Further, Blanton joined the legislature in upgrading the state’s retirement system into one of the most actuarially sound systems in the country. He also emphasized programs promoting equality for women and African Americans and tax relief for senior citizens.
Unfortunately, the image of Ray Blanton in the minds of many Tennesseans dates to the hasty evening swearing-in of Governor-elect Lamar Alexander on January 17, 1979, three days before what should have been the official inauguration. Problems over pardons and paroles arose early in the Blanton administration. Marie Ragghianti, a Blanton appointee and chairwoman of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles, was abruptly fired in August 1977, when she refused to release certain prisoners who, as later events proved, had bribed members of the Blanton administration. Ragghianti retained Fred Thompson, later a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, as her lawyer and won a thirty-eight-thousand-dollar settlement against the state. Peter Maas brought her story to national attention in the book Marie, which became a 1985 movie of the same name, starring actress Sissy Spacek in the title role. On December 15, 1978, the FBI swarmed over Tennessee’s capitol and seized the office of Blanton’s legal advisor, T. Edward Sisk, on suspicion of a cash-for-clemency scandal. They arrested three state employees, including Sisk, and Blanton appeared before a federal grand jury on December 23, 1978, denying any wrongdoing.
On January 15, 1979, Blanton pardoned fifty-two prisoners, claiming the need to do so under a court order to reduce the prison population. One pardon went to Roger Humphreys, the son of a Blanton patronage leader in East Tennessee who had been convicted of murdering his ex-wife and a male companion. Even before the pardon, Blanton had allowed Humphreys to live outside the prison and serve as a state photographer. Fearing further paroles, the FBI approached U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, and State House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter, and they agreed to Alexander’s early inaugural. Blanton later claimed to be the only recent Tennessee governor who left office poor, and he was never convicted of receiving payments for pardons.
In June 1981 Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for selling liquor licenses and served twenty-two months in a federal penitentiary. He was implicated in a scheme to corner the highly competitive Nashville liquor store market by controlling the stores directly or by forcing owners to kick back 30 percent of the stores’ profits. Blanton spent the next ten years, from 1986 until his death on November 22, 1996, trying to restore his reputation. Nine of the charges were overturned in January 1988 by federal court action.
One of Tennessee’s most controversial governors, Blanton remained a politician who played the game to reward his friends and punish his enemies. His efforts on behalf of tourism and economic development, as well as state retirement security, contributed enormously to the general prosperity of the state. Nevertheless, the scandals eventually overwhelmed his reputation.